Pirates Of The Caribbean – On Stranger Tides (**½)

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Fourth "Pirates" more of the same, but this time slightly more fun...

For the first time in four years, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise returns to the big screen with a revamped cast and for director Rob Marshall, a chance to re-establish himself as a big name director who can deliver an entertaining big-budget success.

For those who love these films, there will be lots to enjoy over these nearly two-and-a-half hours. In this installment, we immediately learn that Jack Sparrow has an imposter in London and this new Sparrow is attempting to round up a crew for a journey to find the elusive Fountain of Youth. When the real Sparrow arrives he frees his old friend from the gallows, Joshamee Gibbs (Kevin McNally) and sets out to uncover who his pretender happens to be. Quickly after arrival, Sparrow and Gibbs are captured and hauled in front of a slovenly King George III (Richard Griffiths). Sparing their lives, King George offers Sparrow the chance to join a commissioned expedition to try and uncover the Fountain of Youth. The King does not want the Spanish to have control of the Fountain for short-sighted and prejudicial reasons, but much to Sparrow’s chagrin, he learns that the expedition is led by the returning Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), now absent his right leg.

After accepting the King’s offer, Sparrow discovers that his impersonator is Angelica (Penelope Cruz), an old flame and the daughter of the feared and infamous pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane). Recognizing the connection, Sparrow attempts to flee England but the King’s Army come for Sparrow, resulting in a sword fight which Sparrow and Angelica survive. However, through nefarious means, Blackbeard adds Jack to his team and hopes Jack can spare Blackbeard from his feared fate – death by a one-legged man.

While Sparrow tries to drum up support for an insurrection he befriends a clergyman, Phillip (Sam Claflin), who was spared by Blackbeard because of his knowledge of the Fountain of Youth and the steps necessary in achieving eternal youth. As Sparrow works with Blackbeard’s crew, their journey leads them into numerous perilous encounters and situations, while the commonplace angles of betrayal, love, and redemption resurface yet again.

We have all been down this road before with the “Pirates” films, so the question becomes is anything better with this fourth installment, or are we just trudging through the same dark waters of the previous efforts? The answer falls in the murky middle between a yes and a no.

If you subscribe to the notion that these “Pirates” films have steadily declined through the years, then there is not a lot in “…On Stranger Tides” which will change your mind. The film is still way too long and stuffed with convoluted and meandering subplots which threaten to eat this film from the inside out. Gone however are Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner and Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann, which opens the door for more Johnny Depp and his iconic Captain Jack Sparrow character. With the addition of Penelope Cruz as Angelica, Depp is able to revisit some of the more humorous and engaging elements of his Sparrow character and the film finds a level of fun which was sorely lacking in the previous film.

As Depp and Cruz display some good chemistry together, the film needs whatever spark they can generate because at times, “Pirates” gets caught up in its own existence. Scenes hang around for a bit too long and while Geoffrey Rush is fully engaged and appears to be having a wonderful time in his third (or technically fourth) run as Captain Barbossa, he has switched from good to bad so many times, there really isn’t a whole lot of credibility left with him as a character. Rush is energized though in this incarnation of the now peg-legged Captain, and a funny moment with Depp involving his absent appendage plays for great laughs.

Detractors of Rob Marshall’s films will have some grist for the mill here because “Pirates” is yet another reminder that the splash he made with the Oscar-winning “Chicago” feels like Marshall is a one-hit wonder. Analyzing Marshall’s resume reminds us that all of his films are big ensemble and wide scale films, and nearly all of them have been mediocre to poor. The detractors who complain that the “Pirates” films are too long must buy in to a 137 minute excursion made by a director who seems increasingly unable to trust his editors. Marshall keeps things moving and seems able to have a grasp on large scale effects-laden cinema, but the film would benefit, as most of Marshall’s films would, from a faster, leaner pace and running time.

Ultimately, a thrilling and epic first film (…The Curse of the Black Pearl) resulted in a sequel (…Dead Man’s Chest) which tried to recapture the excitement and spark of the first film, but comparatively came up short. The third endeavor (…At World’s End) was a bloated and uninteresting affair which drained the wry wit and fun from the series and made the entire franchise feel as if it had run its course. With “…On Stranger Tides” you have a mixed bag more akin to the second film than the third, but still not on point with the best of the series.

Placing Depp front and center was a smart and effective move and if you can handle the subplots involving the missionary and a mermaid named Syrena, the melodrama between Barbossa and Sparrow and Angelica and Blackbeard, and all of the hokum over the Fountain of Youth, there is an engaging film to be found here. And yet there is just a lot to get through and by the time the fifth “Pirates” rolls around (and a post-credits scene tells us its coming), let’s hope they can streamline this franchise significantly and remember what worked so well the first time. If “Fast Five” figured things out finally in its fifth entry in their series, I have to think Disney can dial up the right combination to restore this franchise going forward.

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My love of film began at the age of 7 when my parents not only gave me a television, but HBO to boot. My first theatrical experience was "E.T." My first movie cry came with "Old Yeller". "The Usual Suspects" made me decide to make movies and film writing a priority in life, even knowing the twist beforehand. My passion for film, music, and pop culture in general can be isolated to my youth. My love for film took root in high school. Above all else, movies and art, in any form, exist to entertain and I remain much more interested in how art affects others, more than with myself. But I love the conversation and to have a chance to share my thoughts and be a part of the community here is a unique and enriching experience.